Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Movie Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

"Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005)
Directed by: Rob Marshall

- Ziyi Zhang
The Chairman - Ken Watanabe
Mameha - Michelle Yeoh
Nobu - Koji Yakusho
Pumpkin - Youki Kudoh
Chiyo - Suzuka Ohgo
Hatsumomo - Gong Li
Dr. Crab - Randall Duk Kim
Young Pumpkin - Zoe Weizenbaum
Sayuri Narrator - Shizuko Hoshi

I had been waiting for a movie version of "Memoirs of a Geisha" ever since I read the book ten years ago, so I could hardly contain my excitement when the movie finally made its debut in Toronto on Dec23rd. I had longed so much to see Arthur Golden's "Geisha" personified on the big screen that when the first press reports stated Chinese actresses had been selected for all the main parts, including the role of "Sayuri", I was immensely disappointed and feared so much it would rob the movie of its authenticity. After all, did Rob Marshall and Co. not think us discerning enough? Can we not tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese women? And when I did see them on screen, as resplendent as they were in their beautiful kimonos, I still couldn't get used to the fact that they were Chinese girls masquerading as Japanese. It spoiled the movie quite a bit for me. The other irritating factor was the accented English. It would have been so much more authentic for the director to have had the cast speaking Japanese with English subtitles. Ahhh, but I forget, the leading ladies don't speak Japanese!

OK, I'm finished griping now. The rest of the movie - the costumes, sets, music, photography, especially the photography, was quite lovely. I'll give you a concise storyline, but will try to capture the spirit of the movie through its other elements.

Storyline: Chiyo has been sold by her poor fisherfolk parents to the "Okiya" or Geisha house. Everyone makes a huge fuss over her blue eyes and proclaims that she is going to be one of the greatest geishas of all time (blue eyes apparently can do that for you in Japan!) But Chiyo has an enemy - Hatsumomo (Gong Li) a leading Geisha in her day but whose light is now fading - does everything in her power to make this little Chiyo fail. One day, while Chiyo is lamenting her fate on a bridge in the market place she encounters a rather influencial businessman known simply as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and he buys her a cherry ice. This act of kindness inspires in her a desire to become a Geisha and to live to serve him. Fine aspirations for a girl all of 9 years old! In the meantime, the Chairman who is quite taken with her blue eyes, requests a senior geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) to take Chiho under her wing and to train her to become a respected Geisha. So, in this way, little Chiyo becomes beautiful Sayuri, the most "sought-after" geisha in Gion, except, things don't go the way she and the Chairman have planned, well not at first anyway, but I will let you uncover the plot for yourself.

Set & Photography: A massive set of the Gion district of 1920's Kyoto was constructed an hour outside of Los Angeles on a private farm in the Thousand Oaks area. The set included a running river, two bridges, authentic period buildings, and real cobblestone streets. A great deal of smoke and dry ice was used to give the set a foggy, hazy look. Other parts of the movie were filmed at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino and at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The shots of Buddhist temples were filmed in Japan, in Kyoto and they were simply beautiful.

Costumes: The kimonos were to die for, and I found they were a lot sexier than the ones you normally see in other Japanese period movies. The kimono is a fascinating garment and it seems to follow the ideal that "more is less" - the many folds and bows of the kimono have an element of mystery and hidden treasures. It is more about sensuality and exciting the imagination than it is about outright sexuality. Infact, according to the "GreenBay Gazette" Wisconsin, the movie has started a new trend in clothing and make-up.

Music and dance: There is no doubt about it, the crowning glory of "Memoirs of a Geisha" was Sayuri's amazing kabuki-like performance, or the "spotlight" dance. It was a very stylized dance, lots of stark lighting and drama and very entertaining. I, however, cannot see that this is a dance done by Geishas in Kyoto. Enjoyable as it was, it reeked too much of Hollywood to me. I much preferred Sayuri's debut "Fan dance" where every click of the fan reminded me of the foot tap of a Spanish Flamenco dancer. The musical score is haunting and the two theme songs, "Brush on Silk" and "The Chairman's Waltz" are definitely melodies I would listen to over and over again. However, Rob Williams has been criticised for not picking a Japanese composer and for going instead with John Williams (creator of the musical score for Star Wars and the Harry Potter movies). Where was Tan Dun, I wonder? Not available perhaps?

Finally, I think the movie, as visually appealing as it was, didn't do the book any justice. It is a movie blatantly made for a western audience and the Oscars with the Hollywood stamp all over it. Yes, it is educational, in that, you will learn a little about the lives of Geisha women but I doubt that the impact of the movie will be anything like that of the book. Truthfully, I am hoping that someone else is inspired to do another movie version of the book, for this wasn't nearly good enough. If your intention is to have something pleasant to look at and to be entertained, go see it - but if your intention is to get something deeper out of it, you're chasing a distant dream. Just re-read the book instead.

Pictures, courtesy of:;;